“I can see that you are likely shy,” she said.

“I am?”

“It’s difficult to expose yourself for the first time.”

“The first…”

She was standing up, and his voice trailed into silence. First she pulled off her stockings. They dropped to the ground, frail and silken, with a gleam like trapped sunshine. Damon’s eyes followed them with some fascination, she thought.

She waited until he met her eye again, and then slowly, slowly, she began unlacing the front of her gown.

He didn’t move. In fact, he looked as frozen as a man might be who was trying to lure a fawn into eating from his hand. But Roberta didn’t feel like a fawn. She felt like a powerful woman doing exactly as she wished. Her bodice gaped open as she bent to pick up her glass.

He turned slightly red. Roberta took a drink and surreptitiously checked his breeches…yes. He was interested. Very, if that look in his eye were any indication. She bent to put her glass down again, thought about kissing him, and decided that she might as well get rid of her gown first. So she gave an easy roll of her shoulders.

It fell to the ground, all embroidered silk and gold lace. “It was heavy,” she told him. He didn’t look as if he would disagree; his eyes were eating her up.

“Those stays are heavy as well,” he said.

“They lace in the back.” She turned around and waited.

He must have leaped to his feet, because she heard a bang, as if he knocked against the table, and then his long, clever fingers were at her back. She held the stays against her and turned around before she let them fall to the floor. The bodice of her chemise was extremely low, the better to accommodate the neckline of her gown. In fact, it barely covered her nipples at all. And it was made of fine lawn edged in lace.

“Your next move would surely be a spinner,” Damon said. His voice was smoky, almost sleepy. He pulled his breeches down and put them away.

Roberta was afraid to look. Her heart was thudding against her ribs, dancing a rhythm that she hardly knew and yet recognized with an age-old wisdom. That same wisdom was in her smile as she put her arms around his neck and then, still without looking, brought her body against his.

He made a muffled sound, like a groan, and his lips were in her hair and his hands were against her back.

“Buttercup,” he whispered, “there’s no going back from this. You do realize that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said. She’d discovered his ear and was doing exactly what he’d done to hers earlier: kissing it and then, daringly, touching him with her tongue.

“No,” he said, and put her away.

Roberta grinned at him. He was having male scruples, no doubt. She’d watched her father wrestle with those for years, and in her opinion, the wrestling always ended up in the same way: her father did exactly what he wanted to. Her job was to make sure that Damon wanted to do exactly what she wanted.

So she lifted her arms and started pulling pins from her hair. It had been coiled and curled and pinned all over. She pulled pin after pin, and he said nothing. Finally her hair tumbled beyond her shoulders. She bent over and gave it a good shake to get rid of the powder.

Damon stared at Roberta’s sweet little bottom as she bent over and had the feeling of a man drowning—with nary a soul to throw him a life buoy. Kissing Roberta was one thing…but her virginity? He’d never done such a thing.

He could only do it if he were intending to marry her.

But she didn’t want to hear that yet. She was giggling, and the sound went to his heart and his blood sang with joy.

She was his, whether she wished to acknowledge it or not.

Roberta straightened up and turned around. Dark red curls tumbled all over her bare arms, but it was those crazy arching eyebrows and dark plump lips that caught his heart. No one could say that she looked innocent. Hell, after growing up with Selina, she probably knew more about bedding than he did.

Except…he remembered the stunned look on her face when they walked in on that couple tupping in the sitting room.

She was an enchanting mixture of innocence and sophistication.

“I shouldn’t do this,” he said, knowing the truth of it. “It’s not right, Roberta.”

“What’s not right?”

“Bedding you. I can’t do this. I can’t take your virginity when you’re not married, and you’re in love with someone else, even engaged to him.”

Her eyes turned a shade darker blue and Damon instinctually felt that was a bad sign.

“Why?” she demanded. “Do you think that you’re taking advantage of me?”

“You don’t understand the ways of the ton. Hell, your father was crazy to let you come to Jemma’s house. She’s no fit person to take care of a young woman. She’s married, Roberta. Married. And playing chess with—” Too late he remembered that Jemma was playing chess with Roberta’s fiancé.

She had her hands on her hips. “Jemma, whom I adore, by the way, and am not in the least jealous of, is playing chess with Villiers. To whom I am engaged to marry. Villiers told me that my chastity was unattractive, and that he didn’t give a damn who I had slept with, as long as I don’t give him a cuckoo to raise. Damon, do you know how to prevent conception?”

“Yes,” he said, “but—”

“Good. Because so do I, but my understanding is that male participation makes it much more effective.”

His mouth fell open. “You know?”

“Selina lived with us from the time I was fourteen to the time I was sixteen. I loved her. She gave me a great deal of advice, sister to sister.”

He snapped his mouth shut. “You had sisterly conversations with Selina Trimmer.” He wrenched his mind away from the Tête-à-Tête report of Selina’s latest party, in which it was reported that she had filled her bathtub with vintage champagne and invited several guests to watch her bathe. It was also reported that two of them joined her in the tub.

“Do you need some education?” Roberta demanded, hands on her hips.

“What did you learn?” He shook his head. “Forget I asked that. The point is, Roberta, not how much you learned from Selina, but how much I would take away from you by making love to you.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” she said. “You’re practically a family member, after all.”

“Yes! Your cousin.”

“I shall find someone else,” she said. “In case it isn’t clear to you, Damon, I shall not be carrying my inconvenient virginity to bed with Villiers. After all, I’m in love. I wouldn’t bore my husband with such a task, and if you don’t feel like taking it on, there’s no point in crying over it. I shall simply find another man who is more eager.”

Damon almost laughed at that. He’d never felt so damned eager to do anything in his life. In fact—

She was laughing at him. Still a little angry, but laughing. Christ, she was magnificent. Her chemise was of fine lawn, and it barely skimmed her leg, stopping just above her rounded kneecap.

“You go to another man only when I’m dead.”

She clearly didn’t realize that he’d just declared himself. “I realize that you are used to women tripping over themselves, trying to woo you into marriage,” she said, eyes sparkling. “But don’t you understand that I’m not like them? I don’t want your ring, or your money, or your title.”

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